Painting Stories: The Witch’s Bower (NSFW)

 

bathtime

The witch’s bower, ink and digital mixed media, available here.

 

Painting stories is a series where I share my current works. Sometimes it is how they came about. Sometimes it’s more of a story I associate with them.

*

(Before I get into the story, how do other painters deal with the NSFW tag? Like… how much nudity is too much? Just checking.)

(I’m really happy with this Inktober one, tbh. It did not turn out exactly as I would have wanted but that is what second iterations are for. It’s new for me, and I’m happy.)

*

When Amelia Hartley first moved into the house, the neighbours took bets.

One thought it would only take three days before blood appeared on the walls.

Another put 40 quid on her calling the police in a panic on the first night.

Mrs. Jenkins, who had lived down the road since 1970, dusted off her old Tarot deck and washed her best teacups. You never knew when someone would need a medium.

After all, Frog’s Creek was a haunted town, and its citizens had long made a business out of the creepy and the occult. Sure, new faces were hard to come by, and the annual Halloween celebrations always got a little too rowdy, but it was nice to spook the spring breakers and the film students that came around, looking to make the next “Blare Witch Project.”

Amelia Hartley was not a student.

She was also not a long-lost descendent of a local family, no blood relation to someone who died under mysterious circumstances, and, from what the people around her could tell, not a spawn of Satan. “Although,” the men in the pub said, “we’d have to get a little bit closer to find out!” She didn’t flee a stalker or come to Frog’s Creek as a remedy to a busy city lifestyle.

In fact, when she moved in and the neighbours came to introduce themselves, she seemed positively… normal. Boring, really.

“Bookish,” people described her. “Does something with computers. Has people texting her all the time from the big city.”

The house, they said, would break her quickly.

*

The first night passed.

Then the second.

Then the third.

Then a week.

At first, people assumed Amelia was just holding off on the hysterics, as the scientifically-minded did. Maybe, like most of her generation, she was too busy Snapgramming everything and didn’t think about using her phone as intended – to call the police.

But at the seven-day mark, even those who had lost their bets were starting to worry. They saw her every day – in the supermarket, in the coffee shop with her laptop, jogging in the park – looking not at all underslept or worried.

Had she been possessed?

The house didn’t do that, not to anyone’s knowledge, but there was a first for everything. Eventually Joey Oswald flipped a coin and invited her for a drink, so that people could decide for sure.

She said yes.

*

“She’ll speak in tongues as soon as she gets a bit of drink in her,” they said.

“No, she’ll freak out while she’s on her phone. She’ll see something in the camera.”

“You never considered that she will just be normal?”

Everyone turned to look at the bartender, who held up his hands. “Just saying. There do exist such people.”

There was some grumbling and arguing until someone saw Joey and Amelia approach the pub, and then everyone quickly changed the topic. They held off on the suspicious staring for now – they only did that if the tourists were extra-annoying.

Most of the time, the tourists scared themselves worse than any ghost or haunted house could.

The townspeople had seen it all.Visitors coming, looking for a thirll and fed by too many monster movies, and having a freakout in the middle of the night. Visitors who were burned out from too much work and were desperate to feel something again, only realizing that they should have gone to Hawaii when they broke down in the market. Visitors who interpreted every shadow and glitch as a ghost. Visitors who sometimes took their paranoia and rage too far.

That was actually how Amelia’s own house had become haunted. The bartender looked forward to telling that particular story, if the occasion arose. (He was a scepting, but he was good at his job.)

He watched as Joey offered to buy the first round and Amelia said something about him getting dinner already. He got him his usual and raised an eyebrow when she requested rum, straight.

“A lady from a different time,” he said.

“I’m a pirate,” she said, and Joey laughed. So they’d had a good banter going.

The bartender left them alone and went to look after the other patrons, but everyone else had been served and for now at least, they were behaving themselves. He could only hope for so many nights, he decided as he got some limes to chop, and positioned himself so that he could hear Joey and Amelia talk.

“So, how did you find this house?” he asked. “I can’t imagine it being on many retailers’ lists.”

The bartender smiled. Perfect segue.

Amelia, however, laughed. “No, it wasn’t. Gotta say, people are not too fond of murder-suicides, even after the floors have been bleached.”

A hush fell over the bar. Amelia looked around, confused. “Oh, shit.” She giggled. “Was I too loud?”

People shook their heads. The barender, meanwhile, had to set his knife down – he’d nearly sliced off a finger.

Joey broke the silence. “So… you know?”

“My goodness, of course. A Victorian doesn’t go for so little money unless there is toxic mould or some truly terrible crime that happened there,” she said. “I wanted to make sure the real estate agent hadn’t lied to me about the mould so I called a friend of a friend and they told me what had happened. Terrible stuff.”

“And… you weren’t bothered?” somebody asked. It was Mrs. Jenkins, who had decided to skip on her soaps for this one night, assuming she’d get better live entertainment at the pub.

Amelia looked at her dead in the eye and said, “About which part? The one where they die? Or the one where he stalked her first? The latter is worse, honestly. It’s sick that nobody bothered to listen to her until the last moment.”

The bartender cleared his throat. “That… wasn’t exactly how it happened. We didn’t know they had a history together.”

“Oh, yes,” Amelia said. “I suppose he was perfectly charming and normal when you talked to him. Would not have suspected a thing?”

People started shifting in their seats nervously. They hadn’t expected this. Eventually, Mrs. Jenkins asked if Amelia was in the police or something.

“Counselor at a women’s shelter,” she said. “Five years until the burnout got to me.”

More nervous looks. She let them stew for a while longer and then added, “Burnout was a bitch.”

Joey took the offering and changed topic. People listened for a while and then started to dissipate. The show was over for the night.

*

That night, as he was closing up, the bartender thought back.

He didn’t like to – most people don’t – but he had wondered, in the years since that particular tragedy, if he could have prevented it.

Having tourists and newcomers arrive and get carried away by the air of the place was one thing. Having someone actually killing their ex… well. He wondered. He wondered a lot.

The next morning, the town was subdued, people wandering about as if in a trance. When the bartender went to open up around noon, he found Joey Oswald’s father milling in front. “Have you seen him?” he asked the bartender. “I mean… he was meant to take the new girl here, wasn’t he?”

The bartender thought back. Joey and Amelia had stayed together all night but after he’d walked her home, he’d come back for a nightcap. “He looked fine,” he told Joey’s father. “Maybe he crashed with a friend.”

But his friends hadn’t heard of him either. One call turned into a dozen. The constable got involved even though it hadn’t been 12 hours. Amelia opened the doors to her house in case Joey had wandered into one of the many hidey-holes or basements that she had not had a time to check out.

He wasn’t there.

He wasn’t there.

He was nowhere.

By the end of the week, the town had gone into a search, combing the woods and fields. People spread word by the local radio and even went to the neighbouring cities, just in case. Just in case of what? Nobody knew. But hope – strange, stubborn hope, persisted.

Amelia, throughout all this, looked both embarrassed and impatient. She sympathised, she told the bartender one night when she came in for a drink, and she was really sorry. But she was nobody’s relation and now she really seemed so out of place.

“What am I supposed to do?” she asked. “I feel like I have to do something, but I have no idea what?”

The bartender bit his tongue – he knew that soon enough, somebody would say that she wasn’t taking as much part in the search effort as everybody else, and therefore she had something to hide. But what good would that do? Should he tell her to seem more distraught? And how distraught could she get before that got suspicious, too?

“You’re doing your best,” he said. “Everyone is doing their best.”

But in the end, the best was not enough.

When Joey was still not found, 14 days later, the momentum fizzled out. Only his friends and family were left, burning with a desire to know the truth. And without any ways of occupying their attention, they turned it on Amelia.

In the end, she lasted a month.

It was not ghosts that chased her away.

It was not her house.

Some argued that, because the town had chased her away, that still made it supernatural and they deserved a share. But that was not how the system worked.

The bartender ended up collecting on everything.

 

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